The Vampire Queen's Servant (Chapter Fifteen)

"Why would vampires want food? Or care about it at all?" Jacob asked.

The butcher-block kitchen table had more space than the center island, but Jacob discovered Bran tended to get bored and plant his huge front paws on the table's surface, dragging everything on it to the floor. He wondered if Lyssa had ever had the same urge he had, to tie the animal's ears in a painful knot. Or ended up as he had, in a wrestling match with Bran for one of the cookbooks, laughing at them both. It turned out the island was more comfortable for Jacob's long legs anyway, and easier to circle and examine the various items he'd spread out over the counter.

Catering catalogs, cookbooks, several legal pads and pens. When she'd joined him about an hour ago, he'd seen her glance over the three proposed menus he'd already laid out, including appetizers, salad, soup, main course, dessert, and wine selections. He'd made notes in the margins on other household issues. The dogs' schedule, where the switchboxes were, flashlights, a list of things he hadn't found he might have to get at the hardware store. He hadn't let her curt dismissal rattle him, hadn't spent his time sulking. He hoped that had impressed her. Or maybe annoyed her just a little bit. He couldn't tell, but it cheered him to imagine either one.

"Vampires like food, " she responded. "We can't digest it in great quantities, but we love the taste, the aroma. The main purpose of having a five-course meal is to delight them with different flavors and scents. "

"So why don't we choose a mixture of flavors they haven't experienced before, together with things they have, so they can enjoy the new and familiar together? Like fresh brownies, with a side of raspberry cream sauce. A salad made out of fresh produce from local farmers. Nothing smells as good as a garden tomato that's never seen the inside of a refrigerator. " He made a notation. In the corner of his eye, he noted she appeared fascinated by the way he held a pen. He was left-handed, so he had an awkward scribble barely legible to himself. "Will there be any politics to deal with?" he asked.

"Are we both breathing?"

Jacob glanced up in time to see a look of amusement cross her face. It helped ease the ball of apprehension he was carrying in his gut, anticipating that any moment she was going to do something else to test his limits. The way he felt around her was worse than it had been with his high school history teacher who'd loved surprise pop quizzes. In the microcosm of totalitarianism that could only exist in a classroom, to fail on even one of the tests would be 25 percent of the student's grade for the semester. A passing grade on the test was simply discarded, proof he was paying attention. He was finding some definite correlations between Lyssa and Mr. Winstead.

He'd had mixed feelings about the way she'd shut the door in his face. Thomas had helped her far more with her morning toilette than she'd allowed him to do this morning. Her dismissal rankled, but on the other hand, he was realizing how difficult it was to maintain self-control around a woman who kept him in a near constant state of wanting. She looked at him one moment with naked desire glittering in her eyes, her body trembling at his briefest touch. A blink later, she shoved him away, shut him out. Now here she was in a pair of tailored brown slacks and a soft cream sweater he supposed she thought of as simple and demure. Still, he longed to close his hands over the band of the sweater on her hips, pet the curve of her breasts. She'd pulled her dark, fine hair back with a barrette so it lay on her shoulder blades. Spun silk he'd had the pleasure of touching, so just looking at it made his fingers itch.

"The purpose of the dinner is to mark a new vampire for my Region. Thomas explained the structure of our holdings, I assume?"

He had. The vampire world was divided into Regions, groupings of territories won through battle or influence during the formation of the current vampire society, before the Council had been appointed. The heads of those Regions were known as Master vampires. A vampire who accumulated enough wealth and influence might be awarded an overlord title and a territory inside a Region by the Council, preferably with the consent of the Region Master. Vampires lacking the power or experience to be an overlord applied to reside in a territory. The overlord then put them in charge of different business interests. In return the vampires gave the overlord a percentage for his protection and backing. The overlords served the Region Master.

Jacob remembered asking Thomas if it was similar to racketeering. He'd earned an affectionate smack with the book the monk was reading, Thomas knowing when his student was yanking his chain. Understanding the class-conscious formality of vampire society,Jacob thought it made perfect sense they'd chosen a feudal structure.

She was the southern Master. The southern states were hers, everything from Virginia to Texas.

At Jacob's nod, Lyssa continued. "Brian Morris, my guest of honor, is a scientist. He's a born vampire who's petitioned his Regional Master, who also happens to be his natural father, to immigrate to the States to continue his research. The facility is in my Alabama territory. The overlord of that territory is actually a couple, Lady Tara and Lord Richard. They'll be invited to the dinner to witness the marking and accept responsibility for his protection. "

"What would have happened if he'd moved out of his territory without permission?"

She paged through one of the cookbooks, stopping on a lasagna dish. As she followed the lines of text with the unpolished finger, it reminded him he owed her a manicure.

"Well, since he's the Region Master's son, it would have been handled a bit differently. However, in a normal case, you either serve a vampire or you're a loner, and vampires don't tolerate a loner. The point of the system we have is to ensure protection, prosperity, secrecy and a support network for our activities. Any vampire in a territory may appeal a decision to the Region Master if they feel they're being treated unfairly by the overlord. There are different management styles, " she acknowledged with a tilt of her head. "Some are more brutal than others. If a vampire can't find resolution, he or she might seek refuge in another Region, but if that Master isn't willing to offer asylum, the vampire would be considered rogue. Welcome in no territory, his original Master or overlord would quickly catch up to him. The most common punishment is interring him in a sealed container as punishment or warning to others. "

"But you said you don't need air. "

She nodded. "A vampire can live that way for eternity, with great suffering. Most vampires have strengths of value, so the Master or overlord would likely only prolong the lesson a month or two. "

"Have you… " Jacob swallowed, wondering if he really wanted an answer to the question.

When she met his gaze, he noticed she'd chosen tiny gold hoop earrings and small diamond studs for her ears. With their healing abilities, vampires pierced their ears anew each time they chose to wear them. Other than his knowledge of that fact, to all appearances she could have been standing at the head of a board meeting, discussing a change in stock prices. "How would it make you feel about me? If those who have displeased me are screaming hopelessly underground for a release that will only come at my pleasure?"

Jacob sat back, crossed his arms. "You've never done it, my lady. Thomas would never have served you if you had such cruelty. "

"A lot can happen between two people on a journey through life together. " Her dark eyes dwelled on his face, intent and unwavering. "By the end, there were many things Thomas did without thought he wouldn't have considered before we met. In my world, it's a delicate balance, fear and respect, obedience and free will. No vampire respects compassion if he interprets it as weakness. If you find the right balance, you'll command the loyalty of those in your territory. If you're too brutal, you push them into hatred. That is not my way. "

Jacob wryly noticed it was not a direct yes or no, but something to help him sleep at night. Or day, as the case might be. Regardless, he'd no doubt she'd calculated her answer that way.

"You have the largest Region. But you're not part of the Council. Thomas said that was your choice. "

She nodded. "I have three hundred vampires in my area. I helped form the Council and the rules that govern our world, but I'm the last queen of the Far East clan. While that doesn't mean a great deal anymore, symbolically it means enough to tip the scales of power adversely if I sat on the Council. You'll get to meet them later this year. All the overlords and Masters meet once every five years to pay them our respects. What else did Thomas tell you about the vampires in my Region?"

Though her voice was flat, her eyes were still intently focused. He knew what she was asking as if it had been whispered in his ear. "That there are thirty-nine fugitives you've granted asylum. "

She studied him for a moment more. "There are fifty now. When a vampire is accepted into my Region, I mark him or her so I know their whereabouts at all times. That's what I'll be doing with Brian. With the fugitives, it also gives them a limited ability to let me know if they're in distress and who is causing that distress. I may not get there in time, but I will hunt down the perpetrator and make him regret his actions. As long as my reputation holds, they are safe here. "

A sixth of the vampires in her Region were fugitives and yet no overlord or Region Master dared challenge her asylum for them. Jacob was starting to pick up on the reason for her reticence about her illness. I cannot ever show weakness before my enemies, Jacob. It is the first rule of my world.

"Any new territory disputes I should be aware of?"

"None right now. When Rex died, I had to prove I could defend my Region alone. That process is never quite over, but I've had several decisive and somewhat brutal victories recently. " When she tilted her head, considering some dust on the light fixture, he saw the hint of red deep in her irises, like crimson silt at the bottom of an emerald sea. "It's been quiet, " she commented.

It stirred a memory Thomas had given him. Of a time when several vampires, including one of her own overlords, had trapped her in an alley. Or so they'd thought. Three bodies had been left behind, and hers had not been one of them. In fact, after making a brief stop to freshen up, she'd met Rex as planned for a theater production of Peter Pan and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the play.

"You've had a pretty big jump in fugitive numbers since Thomas left. So the conflict between the made and born vampires is getting worse?"

"You're paying attention, " she observed. "Yes. " She spread out her hands, the long nails making it a graceful motion, though it conveyed tension. "As Thomas probably told you, the number of born vampires has dwindled over the past several centuries. To balance that, the Council has allowed more vampires to be made. Unfortunately, these vampires often lack the perspective a born vampire has. They tend to be more resistant to our laws. It's not a popular opinion, but I believe that made vampires have genetic weaknesses, specifically poorer impulse control and a greater level of bloodlust, not a good combination. "

"Almost as though making a vampire is incestuous. "

"You also catch on quickly. " The compliment warmed him, but she didn't raise her attention from the cookbook she was studying again. "There are some, including myself, who have suggested it would be best to stop making vampires altogether until we can better understand why. " She snorted. "We are shouted down. It is apparently better to let rabid dogs loose on the populace than to be perceived as politically incorrect. Most of the Region Masters and not enough of the overlords understand the world works best if humans believe we're the product of overactive imaginations in filmmaking. Sometimes it seems the more 'civilized' we get, the more immature and childish we are. We think we are somehow owed whatever we wish, rather than needing to impose limits on our own behavior. The truth becomes relative to our own experience only. "

There were shadows in her eyes now, telling him the subject had taken a personal and perhaps painful turn for her. "At least there are strict rules on siring a vampire, " she continued. "If you make a vampire without consent, your life is forfeit. The fledgling is spared, but fledglings often die without the sire to watch over them in the first decade. Vampires are not generally nurturing to children not their own. Of course, there is no restriction on trying to create a born vampire. " She allowed herself a tight smile. "Otherwise known as trying to conceive a child. "

Vampires did not use birth control. Becoming pregnant with a vampire child was rare, and treasured. Lyssa had never conceived, but Thomas had sometimes sensed she would have liked to have been a mother. While the monk had been thankful it had not occurred with Rex, and based on what Jacob knew of his lady's husband at this point, he had to agree, he thought he heard a wistful note in her voice. He wondered if she'd ever hoped…

Bran came and pushed against her leg, earning an ear rub. As she leaned over to do so, her clipped hair fell over her left shoulder, brushing the top of the dog's head. "In short, we live by ancient rules, " she said in a crisper voice. "Our natures unleashed would result in a full-scale war with the human race. We may be far superior to humans, but your numbers are far vaster, and your grasp of technology more advanced. We must strike a harmonious balance. "

"It sounds very civilized. " "Does it?" She considered that. "Then I've left a great deal out. "

He bit back a smile, though his mind was still turning over her words, interpreting the personal nuances behind them. Trying to figure out how her mind worked. To cover his ruminations, he bent his head back over the open catalog. "How about this? It's a non-bake version of a fruit cake. It has marshmallows, raisins, graham crackers–"

"That sounds far too mundane. "

Jacob pointed to a paragraph. "Except it says that it smells like freshly made candy. "

Coming around the corner of the island, she laid a hand on his shoulder. When she leaned forward to look, her breast brushed the side of his arm. It wasn't the first time she'd touched him since she'd joined him in the kitchen. Possessive touches, as if he was hers to absently stroke as she was doing now, her hand shifting to his neck to play with the hair he'd queued back. Even without being told, he knew the liberty was not two-sided. Her demeanor, those touches aside, was all business. Even now she was segueing on other things Thomas had taught him about preparing for guests, while offering him points of etiquette specific to these guests and throwing in domestic instructions.

As he listened, a part of his mind wondered if he dared to test it, see if it was just a surface faade. Give in to the desire to run his hand down her back and feel the slight bump of her bra strap under the plush sweater. Play with the tips of her hair with his fingers. Risk a rebuff, or the tempting possibility of not being rebuffed.

In the end, he remained still. For one thing, the information she was giving him was critical to running her house. The way he handled it would determine if he could be the human servant Thomas said he could be with his last dying breath. Based on the things she'd told him thus far, her responsibilities were considerable. It underscored why Thomas had been concerned about her having someone who could watch her back during daylight hours. She was a protector herself, his Mistress.

Even more important, a quiet wonder flitted through her concentrated expression each time she touched him this way. He instinctively kept his head bent over the task of writing now as she stared at his profile and traced the hair at his temple, the curve of his ear. If he chose not to remain passive, he suspected he would take that joy away from her. While he might succeed in replacing it with a different, more volatile pleasure, his Mistress's desire at this moment appeared to be having him quietly submit to her caresses. Surprisingly, he found he could curb his own sexual desire, assuaging it with the pleasure of watching her rediscover the intimacy of casually touching a man who called himself hers, giving her that right.

"You've made four dessert selections so far, " she observed. "While vampires don't eat, we do like a balanced olfactory diet. I think you have a sweet tooth, Jacob. "

"A whole mouth of them, " he agreed. "We'll have a total of four vampires and their servants. I'm thinking we can do a sampler for each of them. "

"Hmm. Not a bad idea at all. But remember we'll only have four place settings. Servants don't eat with us. They stand behind the chairs of their Masters and Mistresses. "

"Through the whole meal?"

Her green eyes glittered. "The more obedient servants hardly blink. They're like statues. "

He had a variety of responses to that, but he managed to swallow them and look down at the catalogs again. "Here's what I have in mind for salads and the soup… "

She examined his choices, approved most. As he watched her, another idea captured his imagination, something which thankfully distracted him from his annoyance at the picture she'd painted. His purpose wasn't to be an activist to revamp vampire society. Instead, he'd taken his oath to serve every need of the vampire queen who was one of the most powerful figureheads in it. "Have you ever smelled fresh candy, my lady?" She'd gone back to the kitchen counter, for she was providing Bran scraps from a bowl in the fridge. "In over a thousand years, I suppose I have. It's been awhile, though. "

"There's an old-fashioned candy shop at the new mall. "

"Good. Pick us up a selection there for the dessert. "

"I was actually thinking you might want to come with me. I need to pick out some clothes for the dinner. The new mall's open 24/7. " As she turned to look at him, a refusal already evident in her expression, he pressed on. "In the center of the building, there's a Ferris wheel in a glass atrium five stories tall. The wheel turns on a ball, so it not only goes in circles straight up and down, but spirals like a top. They do a light and fog show, so when the wheel tilts at an angle, it's like you're going through a waterfall, all air currents and colors. "

When she made a demurring noise in her throat, he continued doggedly. "Waterfalls are the theme of the mall's design, so there are displays throughout the complex. Not just in-house designs. Some of them are sculptures on loan from museums for this first month of the mall's opening. I notice you've got quite a few fountains on your grounds. You might see one you'd like to purchase, or an artist you'd like to commission. "

As he described the Ferris wheel, Lyssa watched the movement of his hands, the sparkle in his eyes. , the half smile on his firm mouth. She'd started the morning by ordering him out of her presence. A moment ago, she'd made sure he understood that not only would he be viewed as inferior in the presence of other vampires, he would be required to act accordingly. His response to that dampening information was to invite her on a date. Her lips twitched. Perhaps she should have told him everything he could expect at the dinner, though she wanted the element of surprise to see how he'd handle himself. He'd encounter far worse at the Vampire Council Gathering.

Bran put his paws up on the island's edge to get Jacob's attention, managing to snag one of the legal pads.

"You great mop. Begone. " Jacob shoved the paws off and gave him a thump on the head with a rolled-up catalog. Bran answered with a loud woof and beat the side of the cabinet fiercely with his heavy tail, setting off a cacophony from the pots and utensils hanging off the two ends.

"Geez. Here. " Jacob picked up an orange out of the fruit bowl and sent it in an impressive sizzling straight line drive across the kitchen. It hit the dog door with enough force to send it through. Bran dashed after it. She heard the barking of the other dogs, startled by the appearance of the orange, initiating a mass chase.

Jacob winced. "Well, I'll be restoring the landscaping on the back walkway tomorrow. You know, I don't think he's half as tough as he'd like you to believe. "

"Most males aren't. " Lyssa crossed her arms. "I don't usually go out in public. Not in an uncontrolled environment like that. I attract too much attention and make a target of myself. "

"You just said you're at somewhat of a lull. What if I got you a disguise of sorts? Planned to get us there in a way we're less likely to be followed. You're interested, right?"

She cocked her head. "Yes. But can you escort me on this excursion and still have everything prepared for my party?"

"Yes, wicked stepmother. I'll have everything planned to the last detail while the mice sew my dress together. " He tapped the top of the legal pad with the menu. "You'll have the full proposal with all the details by tomorrow when you rise. "

She narrowed her eyes at the reference and pressed her lips together at his unrepentant grin. "What kind of disguise?" she demanded.

His pleased expression warmed her far more than it should have. "Will you trust me to surprise you, my lady?" Studying him, she was sure she saw mischief simmering behind those clear blue innocent eyes.

"I'm going to regret this, " she decided. "But I can still tear off your arms and beat you with them if you make a mockery of me. "

He gave her a quick, absent smile as something caught his attention and he bent his head back over a magazine. Lyssa wasn't sure if his reaction made her want to make good on her threat now or eat him alive, but either way, she knew she was in perilous waters. But then, she'd been in those for so long, she should have fins by now. Was Jacob somehow Thomas's version of a personal flotation device?

How much did you know, monk?